Physical humor basics

- 5 (& 3/4) reasons to use physical humor in speeches

Physical humor has an immediacy that by passes language completely and goes straight to the funny center. It transcends age groups, gender and culture.

Laughter button graphic: "Laughter is the shortest distance between people"

We universally laugh at the physical foibles and frailties making us human: clumsiness, (tripping up, banging into or dropping things) or the struggle to master a new skill (drive a car, cook, dance, swim, juggle, walk in high heels ...).

Our laughter springs from recognition or empathy.

That could have been us who just slipped on the banana skin, who misjudged the distance between themselves and a chair and ended up sitting on the floor, who found themselves locked out of their house because the wind slammed the door ...

We feel the jolt of surprise, share the pain, and are relieved when it turns out alright in the end.

The question is - how can we work aspects of physical humor into our presentations or speeches if we are neither a natural storyteller, nor a professional comedian?

Physical humor & natural storytellers

Some people use physical humor naturally. They literally can't do otherwise.

These are the folk who mimic either themselves or others as they tell their stories. Their arms will stretch as wide as possible to show you how big the fish was they caught. They will hop on one foot and grimace with exaggerated pain as they regale you with the story of how they stubbed their toe on the step while carrying the groceries inside.

They are compelling, magnetic speakers using heightened body language to share their stories, to make them funny. You want to listen and watch.

My brother Michael was one of these: a natural storyteller. Nearly everything that happened to him was retold with full-body accompaniment and an optional sound track thrown in. He never simply went fishing. He went FISHING and when the fish bit, they SAVAGED the bait.

Here's a story to illustrate.

The fifteen buckets of eel

Retro black and white graphic- a boy fishing

As a child Michael went with a couple of friends to catch eels in the creek. They got one: a small one and carried it home in a bucket.

That evening he entertained at the dinner table. He demonstrated hauling the eel out of the creek. Now it took three boys all huffing and puffing with the strain, as it was determined to get away. One boy lost his grip on the line, and fell into the creek. Ker-splash!  The second boy ran out of breath and keeled over panting. Guess who landed it flapping on the bank? By now that eel was gigantic in size and one bucket wasn't enough. He proudly told us it took fifteen buckets to bring it home.

I remember laughing so hard I almost choked as he demonstrated trying to juggle the buckets full of jiggling eel.

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Using elements of physical humor in speeches

Finding your brand of funny

What if you are not a naturally exuberant, physically expansive, wave-your-arms-around type of story teller? Can you take some of those characteristics and blend them with your own style?

The short answer is YES.

The longer answer involves bravely experimenting to discover what you can take without tipping into unbelievable incongruity. When we force ourselves too far from our natural home base we become awkward and false. What do you do already that you can consciously isolate, strengthen and build on?

If you're seriously committed to improving your performance having a 'humor buddy' will help. That's someone watching you speak, analyzing or critiquing your efforts and giving you feedback on what did, didn't work, why, and what to do about it. Likewise a course in improv theater or mime will build your skill base and awareness.

If you want to dip your toes in the water - to get an idea of what might be involved the exercises below are a good starting point.

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Learning the basics of physical humor

3 tips plus exercises for beginners

1. The first prerequisite is to watch people closely

Good people watchers observe body language and learn how to read it.

They know when a body says closed, go away, or when the signal is angry, sad or happy.

They understand context and when they get more sophisticated: cultural nuance.

Retro graphic - woman with a pair of binoculars

2. The second fundamental is to practice reproducing what you see

A person adept at using physical humor does more than read body language, they've learned to reproduce it too.

They copy shamelessly, and exaggerate as well. What was a minor but recognizable characteristic now becomes the dominating feature.

For example, as a child I used to stand on one foot, twiddle a lock of my hair and dream. A family friend perfected it. If he wanted to be 'me', he had it accurately, in an instant, without the need for words.

3. The third hallmark of physical humor is that it doesn't rely on language

You can get the joke, the point of the story, without it.

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3 physical humor exercises

1. Becoming a child again

A young child (2-5 years old) generally responds openly and spontaneously without masking their true feelings. What you see, is what you get. Practicing child-like whole body unambiguous and committed responses in front of a mirror will let you see clearly whether you have it right or not.

Cartoon of a happy girl

Use the suggestions below to strike a pose. Once you feel you have it right, hold it like a statue. Look and feel what it does - how it shapes your body and the expression on your face. For now, forget about sound. Focus purely on aligning your body truthfully with each suggested state and observing it.


  • pain - from a stubbed toe
  • joy - seeing their mother/father again after an absence
  • disgust - an unfamiliar food that tastes odd
  • shame - after being told-off or reprimanded
  • delight - playing a game like hide and seek that amuses them
  • fear - aroused by a sudden fright

2. Walk in another's shoes

Work with a friend. Have them walk in front of you in a large circle, and keep walking until they've lost self-consciousness.

When you've observed them carefully, begin to follow them around the circle. Copy as closely as you can the way their feet meet the ground, how they hold themselves, what their arms are doing, and so on.

When you think you've got it right, ask them to step aside and watch you as you 'walk'  like them. Swap over and repeat.

The point of the exercise is to discover how a state of being informs how our body expresses itself.

You can practice variations anywhere, anytime. Try asking yourself what would I walk like if I was 'in love', if I had a sore toe, if my shoes pinched, if I was walking barefoot on hot sand, if I had a sore lower back, if I was very elderly, if I was arrogant ...

3. State slipping

Practice slipping in and out of 'states'.

Watch yourself in the mirror as you go from neutral to envious, joyful, shy, flirtatious, bored, despairing etc. The bigger and bolder the gestures the better. Hold each one and look. Is the state clear, unambiguous?

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5 (& 3/4) reasons to learn the basics of physical humor

Understand a presentation or speech is a performance. You are the performer, whether you like it or not.

Laughter button graphic: "Laughter is the shortest distance between people"

You stand in front of a group of people to speak and maybe demonstrate as well. They watch and listen to you.

When you add humor appropriately and well, particularly physical humor, your presentation is more effective because:

1. People learn better with laughter

Good humor relaxes. It opens people, makes them more receptive and able to grasp new things or ideas. They will also remember longer if they learned with laughter as the teacher.

2. People perceive the person who is able to use humor as confident and able.

This is definitely a plus in gaining an authoritative edge. The person who can laugh at themselves publicly is admired.

3. Physical humor cuts through language and cross cultural barriers faster than any speech can

The ability to mime is a great tool to have in your kit.

4. Physical humor appeals to all age groups

Each of us is human. Its truth works regardless of our age.

5. Physical humor paints a picture, and a picture says a thousand words

The capacity to mime or reproduce stereotypical states of mind, situations, or people, cuts out having to explain everything. Showing or demonstrating does it for you.

And last but not least, the 3/4 reason:

It makes YOU feel good and if you feel good, it's more likely you'll make your audience feel the same way

And the reason it's only a 3/4 or 75% reason?

Because mostly when we perform a speech we have the audience uppermost in our mind, not ourselves. It's about what 'they need', not about us. We are simply the vehicle carrying the message.